‘Waking up white’: Am I really awake?

Note: The following response was written as part of a book study at Christ Presbyterian Church, Hanover Park, IL.

For the most part I thought that Debby Irving navigates her emotions admirably in Waking Up White (Elephant Room Press, 2014). I don’t recall Irving often using the word shame to describe her whiteness, although I could be wrong about that. On her website, she counsels that feelings of guilt or shame are “thoroughly normal.”

I agree with the observation that shame about whiteness or about any other marker of identity seems like a counterproductive impulse. A friend recently wrote to me that nothing good comes from self-hate. It is hard to argue with that, as lashing out inwardly is but another form of violence, hardly mandated by assurances of faith that have been available to our communities for millennia: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus …” (Rom 8:1 WEB).

Truthfully, I don’t know how shame works, although I can attest that, in my family, it manifests itself in silence. It’s possible to imagine how silence spreads, starting from my great-great-great-great grandparents, who owned a wheelwright concern and kept at least ten enslaved Africans, adjacent to the sprawling holdings of slavery defender John C. Calhoun in Abbeville, South Carolina.

According to estate records, my ancestors argued over possession of these individuals; they feuded over generations, assessed the monetary values of persons, their characters, and capacities for work and reproduction. I’m convinced that they knew that what they were doing was morally indefensible (they had all read the book of Exodus), yet they were too heavily invested in the systemic benefits of Pharaonic control to bear witness.

Over decades, and over iterations of the slave economy that have endured past 1863, somehow we, as a family, conveniently forgot how wealth was accumulated, legacies passed down, notable achievements credited to native competence and divine blessing.

So, in my inexact and imaginary account of family history, shame and silence have been inherited along with charcoal sketches of antebellum homes and gold pocket watches. But at some moment along the way, the bill comes due and there must be a reckoning.

For me, the predominant emotion in reading Irving’s book and others like it (see Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family) is not shame, but regret. Like the narrator in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, I think that I’ve missed out on something, like somehow, in inhabiting an identity (white, male, Protestant, straight) that never gets challenged and for which the course always gets smoothed, there’s an expanse of human experience to which I do not have access.

I actively open myself to hybrid identities, to borderlands, to inter-racial dialogue, to challenging liturgies and pedagogies – but, then, at an academic conference, when I hear a white male scholar identify himself as a feminist, I sense that there is a bit of inauthenticity about my position. I could no more label myself a feminist than I could label myself a liberator – these are not my callings. (Did you see Kevin Costner in the film Hidden Figures smashing the “colored bathroom” sign with a crowbar? Is that what really happened? Can we really say that whites “freed” enslaved Africans?)

My best option, I suppose, is to liberate myself from chains of inwardly directed race- and gender-based self-loathing. Hopefully a lifetime of hard soul work can help prepare for such liberation. This is the soul work suggested in Apostle Paul’s direction to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Then I’m more likely to accept an overriding identity as child of God.

I’m rudderless without the relationship to this power beyond human categories of race, money, gender, sexuality, and passport. We’re the products more of the conversations we have – “let this conversation be the prayer,” a fellow church member said to me once during Lent – and the hands we hold.

Such are the statements that I aspire to, that I have yet to realize.

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